On the Other Hand
I know I exasperate people but I just can’t help it. I must have been created that way in the beginning. Having been like I am for what I suppose I have to admit is over three-quarters of a century, I fear I am not going to change now. “What is it?” you ask, “which irritates others.” I just cannot stop myself from throwing into the conversation where a proposal is being made, “…but, on the other hand”. Take that occasion a couple of weeks ago. Wearing my hat, as the saying goes, as a school governor, I was in discussion with the head of the school. An excellent head-teacher who is clear about her aims and objectives, and who is resolute by nature, purposeful in seeking the best for staff and pupil alike; and having given due thought to what she ought to do, makes up her mind and is not easily deflected. My opposite in every particular.
She explained what she was proposing, and why, but before I could stop myself I was ‘but on other-handing’. She patiently demolished my arguments, then added, “and stop being so reasonable”. Expressed differently, from time to time similar statements are made in my domestic surroundings.
Again, I can’t help making excuses for other people. I think of it as an attempt to be fair-minded; others call it being argumentative. Perhaps spending too much time doing crosswords has conditioned me not to see the world in a straight-forward way. There always has to be an alternative way of interpreting events, some other reading of what appears to be the straight-forward clue presented. I have I’m afraid, this compelling urge to make the smooth places rough.
Strange to harbour this quirk of behaviour, this defect of character. After all I was brought up, like I can believe all us here, within a framework of rules, taught to respect the law, defer to authority. In scripture lessons I learnt the ten commandments which certainly didn’t permit any shilly-shallying. No “on the other hand” in those tablets of stone. Rules are about absolutes; black is black and white is white, and ne’er the twain shall meet, to misquote Kipling. Silk purses and sows’ ears are incompatible. The boundary between right and wrong is sharp and clear. Or so I learnt; later to so preach to the children in my care when I became a school-teacher.
Except I know now that life is much more complicated than simple rules lead us to believe. Questions rise to lips.
Take the apparently uncontroversial sixth commandment, for example, Thou shalt not kill. Accepting this is to be applied to the human race rather than the animal kingdom in general – otherwise mouse traps and fly sprays would be banned, and the diet of a large part of the population would alter drastically – there are still many opportunities to argue for and against. The pro and anti abortion argument, euthanasia, use of life-support machines, with-held medical treatment, stem cell research, are all issues round life and death with strong, sincere opinions offered and then challenged.
“Thou shalt not kill, but need not strive, Officiously to keep alive”
wrote Arthur Dean Clough in his alternative Decalogue. Ethical dilemmas around what is officious and what is compassion are the source of fierce argument. And contradictory interpretations on the right to life are not a recent phenomena; wasn’t the woman taken in adultery to be stoned to death? By order of the religious leaders who were guardians of the holy laws. The sixth commandment brings a sackful of ‘on the other hands’ to keep one going for months.
Thou shalt not steal seems plain enough, but what is and is not theft? I shall leave aside the well-worn excuse, “I didn’t take it, I only borrowed it.” Clough’s Decalogue contains the couplet,
Thou shalt not steal; an empty feat
When it’s so lucrative to cheat.
But are theft and cheating of the same order? Does one encompass the other? A definition of cheating includes deception, says Chambers dictionary. Then is all deception wrong? Which one of us would unwaveringly argue that is so, when compassion dictates that the truth will cause needless distress to some-one we love? Is enjoying the fruits of the labour of the peasant working in a sweat-shop for poverty wages a form of theft? Should we therefore abstain from buying and deny the labourer his meagre income? Oh dear, I’m already muddled and confused.
It is sometimes said, or at least implied, that as one grows in maturity and begin to stockpile experience, decisions, life choices and the ability to make sense of the world around becomes easier. But as far as I am concerned, that is at best only partially true. In many respects, life becomes much more problematical. The boundaries become blurred, the grey area lying between the black and white wider, more prominent.
To covet is a verb not in general use these days. To wish, or to long for, my dictionary gives as its meaning. One can appreciate that longing can lead to desire to own a neighbour’s possessions; a desire which may become obsessive, leading to foul deeds. There is a line surely between wishing to acquire similar goods to those owned by ‘her next door’, and actually laying false claims to her possessions. The urge to replicate another’s material goods is sometimes referred to as keeping up with the Jones’.
To quote Clough’s ironic verse once more, “Thou shalt not covet; but tradition approves all forms of competition”. However, Quentin Crisp warns us, “Never keep up with the Jones’, drag them down to your level, it’s cheaper”. Somewhere in all that mixture there must be one or two ‘on the other hands’. But don’t worry, I will resist exploring them today.
Our fore-bears were part of a movement described as non-conformist. They were men and women proud of a tag which labelled them as independent in thought. Collectively, they rejected the demands to subscribe to a doctrine laid down by others. Yet the title is only a partly true description, for in one respect they were strongly conformist. Their reference book was the bible, both old testament and new. Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy, the Mosaic tablets enjoined, so they did; disapproving of and reprimanding those who failed to conform to those standards. Failure to conform, it was abundantly clear, was sinful, as was hanging out the washing on a Sunday, which I doubt my mother would ever have done, even under the threat of death.
We today, descendants of non-conformists, spend much of our time conforming, rightly so, for too much revolution leads on to anarchy.
Yes, as I have grown in knowledge and experience, but perhaps not in wisdom, some certainties have grown weaker; doubt and confusion increased. Wandering along the road, stumbling from time to time, I am never too sure that the sign-post is absolutely accurate, to be trusted with complete confidence.
But where is all this journey through what one of our old hymns pictured as “the night of doubt and sorrow” leading to.
My head-teacher friend is right. You mustn’t spend your life being so reasonable that you never decide on any course of action. Endless debate at the crossroads means going nowhere. Rooted to the spot and forever dithering. One recalls another oft-quoted passage which refers to the “on the other hand” debate. The passage begins, “To everything there is a season, a time to every purpose under heaven”.
We do need the framework of rules, sometimes even rigid and unchallenged rules, if we are to journey through life not circling round aimlessly, or stuck for ever in the same place. But everything has its season, and occasions have to be found to explore alternative options.
I watched a mother with a toddler in the super-market car park the other day. The child wanted to race across to the car some distance away. The mother insisted that the little girl held her hand and walked, thus restrained, across the intervening space. No argument. No perhaps there might be a case to be heard. The unbending rule was imposed. Quite rightly too, for danger lurked as vehicles came and went. Freedom to run joyfully was not apposite. The season was not ripe, though it might be so at another at another time in another place.
Our expanding bank of experience, together with the maturity which hopefully the passing years bring, expands the range of choices. At the core the laws of life embody absolute values which must remain unchallenged, or we become as amoral beasts of the field, self-centred, lacking compassion, indifferent to any needs except those of our own. And rules for living are not only about ‘shalt not’, there is also a hefty section on ‘must do’. It is significant that Jesus is quoted as signalling that the great commandments fell into that latter category, positive rather than negative.
Some of our hymns and prayers mention not wishing that our lives should be made easy. Well, growth in experience certainly doesn’t do that, as the number of choices to be made grows. Opportunities for examining ‘on the other hand’ multiply. Some of the old certainties move into the ‘almost certain’ column, or the ‘yes, with qualification’ section, even into the ‘well, maybe’ or the ‘open to doubt’ category.
Come to think about it, perhaps I needn’t be so apologetic about being an ‘other hander’. At the right time, and in the right place, it is surely not the worst defect in my character. Provided there are those who keep reminding me not to be too reasonable, maybe I shall come to no harm. Possibly even do a bit of good. But, on the other hand…..
Hucklow 15th January 2005